The People of Gibraltar
1898 - The Tourmaline Expedition - Major Spilsbury 


Major Albert Gybbon Spilsbury  (Charles Robertson )

When last I looked the cheapest copy of Major Albert Spilsbury‘s book , The Tourmaline Expedition, would have put me back about a couple of hundred quid - which might explain why I didn’t buy it. Instead I found a digital copy kindly made available by the Royal Geographical Society of Australia. It is a densely written book running to over 250 pages – most of which have nothing to do with Gibraltar.

The title page with two mistakes – Spilsbury’s second name was Gybbon and the appendix was written by W.R. not W.B. Stewart

Nevertheless the scene – so to speak – needs to be set in order to understand the bit that does.  So here is a summary mostly taken from a critique of the book that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald of September 1906 – or shortly after the event took place. 

In 1896 a fellow by the name of Kerim Bey who was in the habit of presenting himself as a convert to Mohammedanism but was in fact an Austrian adventurer, arrived in London with documents from the Sus tribes of the western Hinterland of Morocco. 

These documents were supposed to be concessions giving the bearer sole right to trade in that part of northern Africa inhabited by the 47 tribes of Sus. He had obtained them – or so he said - as a consequence of a certain amount of influence that he had acquired there because of his medical skills. The document was backed by a letter from the Shereef of Wazan, the chief religious leader of North Morocco, in which all the Mohammedans of the Maghreb were urged to extend to him both protection and assistance. The Shereef – unfortunately had since passed away.

The Shereef of Wazam - He abandoned the practice of polygamy in order to marry an English lady, a Miss Keane, who became known as the Shereefa of Wazan - This photograph was taken by the Gibraltarian, Antonio Cavilla, a pioneer of photography in Morocco.

Kerim’s concessions were in duo course acquired by the Globe Venture Syndicate, of which the chairman was Sir Edward Thornton once upon a time British Ambassador at St. Petersburg and Constantinople. Major Spilsbury who may or may not have been part of the Syndicate was appointed to visit the Court of Morocco in order to find out on their behalf whether the concessions were of any value.

Sir Edward Thornton   (1886 - Vanity Fair )

Spilsbury went to Tangier via Gibraltar and consulted with Sir Arthur Nicolson the British Minister of the place at the time. The advice he got was not encouraging. It would be madness to embark on any venture much less trade with the Sus - without the Sultan’s permission.

Sir Arthur Nicholson - Minister at Tangiers, 1895–1904;

Spilsbury then met with the Shereefa of Wazan - who confirmed that the letter from her late husband was genuine. He also visited Kaid Maclean the Scottish Commander-in-Chief of Sultan Mulai Hassan's army. Both the Kaid and the Sheriffa were in agreement - Kerim Bey was an out and out crook and his concession was worthless.

Shereefa of Wazan and family

Kerim Bey cannot have been the only scoundrel Kaid Maclean ever dealt with in Morocco. Maclean’s full name was General Sir Harry Aubrey de Vere Maclean and it was while he was serving with the 69th Foot regiment in Gibraltar in 1876 that a casual visit to Tangier had led to his appointment by the Sultan Mulai Hassan as military instructor of his Moroccan forces. 

Kaid Maclean   ( Vanity Fair )

The Sultan’s army was supposed to consist of 30,000 men, a nice round number that Mulai Hassan insisted in counting out for himself once a year. On such occasions the entire force would march past his coach in single file, while his secretary counted each soldier one by one. As soon as the file had marched past the Sultan into the city by one gate, the men ran through the streets to another and passed through again and again until the 30,000 had been duly counted.

Mulai Hassan – Sultan of Morocco  ( 1887 – Illustrated London News )

Kerim Bey and his concession may have proved worthless but Major Spilsbury was nevertheless convinced – regardless of Sir Arthur Nicolson’s advice - that he might be able to negotiate directly with the Sus tribes. An interview with the only European who had at the time penetrated into the Sus country - a missionary called Miss Herdman - had convinced him it was worth the try. 

Spilsbury travelled to the port of Mogador where he met with several Sus tribesmen including their paramount chief, negotiated a deal to sell them arms and ammunition and returned to London with a genuine concession document in his pocket. It was good news for the Syndicate who were now determined to cash in on the arrangement. In 1897 the 150-ton steam yacht Tourmaline, sailed for Antwerp to pick up the arms.

150-ton steam yacht Tourmaline

Naturally – if unfortunately for Spilsbury - the Sultan objected to gun-running into his dominions - especially as the guns were destined for people who were already giving him considerable trouble. As a result when Salisbury arrived from Antwerp and tried to land his cargo in Mogador his men were met with hostile Moorish troops and he was forced to move away from the harbour leaving several of his crew on shore.

The Sultan persisted and sent a Moorish man-of-war to intercept the Tourmaline. It forced Spilsbury to steam outside the three-mile limit making it impossible to continue. The Tourmaline beat a hasty retreat to the Canaries and then to Gibraltar where, according to Spilsbury:
Mr. Carrara, a banker and magistrate of Gibraltar was my agent, and showed me every possible kindness. He procured for us all the latest news as to the notoriety the Tourmaline had acquired and the rumoured action of the Government in regard to her adventures. . . .
Unfortunately a local ship chandler who had supplied the Tourmaline with provisions had been told by members of the crew that the ship was carrying a cargo of arms. That evening well primed with strong local beer he made the news available to anybody who happened to be passing by. Mr Carrara - with whom Spilsbury had been lunching that evening – was horrified by this indiscretion. There was apparently: 
. . . an Ordinance in Gibraltar that made it an offence for any vessel to come into the harbour with arms and ammunition without declaring them under penalty of $200 fine . . . 
Arrangements were quickly made to take coal that night from one of Carrara’s coal hulks (see LINK) and slip over to Algeciras and out of Gibraltar’s jurisdiction.  Mr Carrara, incidentally was probably a member of a very well off family that ran a local firm set up in the 1850s - John Carrara and Sons. 

In March 1898 Spilsbury left the Tourmaline and made his way to London and into serious trouble. The War Office had suspended him from duty after a complaint by the Foreign Offic. He was charged with illegally landing arms in Morocco and quickly thrown out of the army. In July 1898 he was arrested under a warrant of the Consular Court at Tangier on the curiously worded charge of "riotously and routously assaulting the soldiers of the Sultan of Morocco." 

Meanwhile the directors of the Globe Venture denied having known anything about anything to do with the affair and Spilsbury was left well and truly holding the entire baby. The intention was to have him tried in Tangier – as had been those members of his crew that had been trapped and left behind in the Sus territory of Morocco. The 1st Baronet Sir Ellis Ellis-Griffiths – a British lawyer, radical Liberal MP and well known wit - was hired to defend them but they were all found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment. The court, it would seem lacked a sense of humour. 

Ellis Griffiths MP

All of which must have given Spilsbury quite a bit of food for thought:
I was charged at Bow Street Police Court and remanded for a week on bail. On August 1st I was. . .  committed for trial. Hawksley, of the firm of Hollam, Son, Coward and Hawksley, acted as my solicitor, and he immediately applied to the Court of Queen’s Bench for bail, and to have the trial removed from the Consular Court of Tangier, where there was no provision for a jury, to the High Court of Gibraltar, where a jury could be obtained. After repeated adjournments I was finally successful in getting the place of trial altered  . . . (and) I was taken out in the custody of Mr. R. Hare, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, on board the P and O liner the SS Egypt

SS Egypt

One step forward . . and then two back: 

On his arrival he was taken to the local court house, where he was granted bail by the Chief Justice of Gibraltar, Stephen Herbert Gatty, a man who would eventually be knighted in 1904. From 1895 to 1900 Gatty’s court only had to deal with about seven cases – not exactly a heavy schedule. Unfortunately one of these had been in Tangier where he acted as judge in the trial which had convicted Spilsbury’s men. Not surprisingly he decided that Spilsbury himself should be tried in a similar fashion – In other words without a jury.

Gibraltar Court House and offices off Main Street (see LINK) 

This was seriously bad news. Spilsbury immediately appealed but Gatty refused the appeal on the grounds that he could do no such thing until after the trial had been held. When Spilsbury insisted on his right to be able to appeal on any question of law, the attorney-general intervened and upheld his claim. It meant that he was allowed to leave Gibraltar in order to present his case in London - which he duly did and eventually earned himself the right to trial by jury.

Sir Stephen Herbert Gatty 

Ellis Griffiths was again the lawyer for the defence – this time facing a much more amenable audience. Where – he asked rhetorically during his summing up – would England be without plucky and enterprising Englishmen such as his client. The Judge was not impressed and according to Spilsbury:
. . . summed up very strongly in favour of prosecution . . . His efforts, however, were fruitless . . . the jury returned a verdict of acquittal amongst such a burst of applause from the crowded Court that the Judge and ushers were powerless to stop it. 
I left the court amidst the acclamation and congratulations of the populace and the whole way from the Court to the Royal Hotel, I received an ovation which did honour to the hearts of the Gibraltarians.

( 1879 – Gibraltar Directory ) (See LINK

The British authorities did not take kindly to what they must have considered a rather humiliating defeat and applied for another warrant to be issued from the Consular Court of Tangier. It would allow them to grab hold of Spilsbury and have him tried once again - this time without a jury.

Spilsbury, however, had been forewarned – almost certainly by Carrara - and was by then sitting in a bar in Algeciras probably sipping a decent Manzanilla and nibbling the tapas that had came with it. He must have watched with some amusement as the Government torpedo boat made its way across the Bay towards Tangier carrying the application for his arrest. It was a useless warrant as long as Spilsbury kept himself outside the jurisdiction of either Tangier or Gibraltar. 

A view of the Rock from Algeciras   ( 1890s - Jean Laurent ) (See LINK

Whatever happened next I have no idea – other than that he was never convicted for his failed attempt at gunrunning. What I do know is that Spilsbury owed his freedom to his good friend Carrara. It is almost certain that it was he who had advised him that there wasn’t a jury made up of Gibraltarians who would ever convict him. 

To understand why one needs to understand the makeup of the jury lists in Gibraltar. Unlike nowadays it was formed by a rather restricted group. Spilsbury himself draws attention to three of them – two Government contractors and a clerk employed by Carrara and Co – who was of course challenged by the prosecution. 

These people and almost certainly the rest of the jury – were all closely connected with a relatively small but select group of merchants who more or less controlled the trading environment on the Rock. Carrara was one of them. Almost all of them were involved to a lesser or greater extent in what was euphemistically known in Gibraltar as the import and export trade - in other words smuggling in all its guises. (See LINK

Carrara was certain that a jury of Gibraltarians would never convict a respectable looking character on a smuggling charge. He advised Spilsbury accordingly throughout - and he was proved right.  

With thanks to John Restano (Justice so Requiring) and Christopher Grocott (The Moneyed Class of Gibraltar) who pointed me in the right direction